Hawaii debuts new Online Care service for all residents

By Eric Wicklund
09:26 AM

A trip to the doctor just got a whole lot easier in Hawaii.

Starting Thursday, residents of the nation's 50th state were able to connect with their doctors online through the Hawaii Medical Service Association's new Online Care service. Available via the Internet or telephone and to all residents of the state regardless of membership with HMSA, the service offers 10-minute online sessions with a credentialed participating physician for a flat fee ranging from $10 to $45.

Online Care is offered in conjunction with the Boston-based American Well Corporation. The HMSA, Hawaii's largest insurer and an independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, and American Well have been working on the project since last June, and officials say 85 percent of those patients involved in the testing phase reported satisfaction with the process.

"We're proud to partner with HMSA to improve access to physician care in Hawaii," said Ido Schoenberg, MD, American Well's chairman and CEO, in a press release. "The results from early participants are encouraging and demonstrate that HMSA's Online Care is poised to become a very important option for healthcare delivery in 2009."

Hawaii is the first state to develop an online resource for doctor's visits. More than 140 physicians, including those in general and family practice, cardiology, internal medicine, OB/GYN, ophthalmology, pediatrics, psychiatry, surgery and urology, are currently part of the Online Care network. The service is available at any time, including nights and weekends, and doctors are reimbursed for their time.

Critics of the system, including some insurers, have said Online Care will erode the traditional doctor-patient relationship and lead to inaccurate diagnoses or treatments. Officials are quick to point out that these online visits aren't intended to replace face-to-face communications between a doctor and a patient, but should be used as an alternative when a trip to the doctor's office isn't possible.

"HMSA's Online Care is making Hawaii's healthcare system more accessible to patients by overcoming the constraints of time, distance, mobility or lack of insurance," said Michael A. Gold, HMSA's executive vice president and chief operating officer. "Our state is an island community with many rural areas, and HMSA's Online Care will help improve access by connecting patients in those areas to physicians statewide."
"This exciting new service will increase access to specialty care for our Neighbor Island residents," Gold added. "It will also improve the quality of healthcare by making it easier for physicians to keep in touch with patients and monitor their progress over time."

American Well and the HMSA have also been working with Microsoft to develop an online personal health record repository for residents through the HealthVault system. Hawaii residents are now able to use HealthVault to tracks and share personal health information from a variety of sources, including hospitals and healthcare providers, home-based devices and the patients themselves.

"Our collaboration with HMSA and American well helps ensure that care is informed and closely coordinated among all the important stakeholders, including primary care physicians," said Peter Neupert, vice president of Microsoft's Health Solutions Group. "The early success of Online Care in Hawaii can serve as a model nationwide for improving the flow of information between individuals and their care providers."